I must admit that I had to look up what a ronin was, shame on me. Obviously you know, but I’ll just put it out there that a ronin was a masterless samurai. Apparently a samurai was supposed to commit ritual suicide upon the death of his master, but those who did not became ronin and were akin to mercenaries. There will be an expert out there who will pick holes in this definition, and they will be right, but I know more about the ronin now than I did before this game showed up at my house, and that has to be something. 7 Ronin has just been published in an English edition by Grey Fox games, and a two-player game of bluff and counterbluff sounded like something I would be happy to play. The two designers, Marek Mydel and Piotr Stankiewicz, have some games to their credit, but 7 Ronin is the first of their designs that I have encountered, so let’s get straight into it.
The box gives a good first impression.
What’s ron-in the box? Let’s find out!
I have seen some complaints about the component quality in 7 Ronin, but I have to say that I was very pleased with what tumbled out of the box. There is one exception, but I’ll get to that later. It is all pretty snugly packed in a small box, and players are provided with a central board, two player boards with screens, impressively thick character tiles, a rule book and various tokens. It becomes immediately clear that the fifty ninja markers are going to need to be looked after very carefully indeed, because while they are beautifully designed to look like shuriken, they are also tiny. I used the Games Quest unit of measurement (a five pence piece) and managed to get seven of them on there with space to spare and am always petrified I am going to lose several of them during a game of 7 Ronin. Grey Fox could simply have provided small black cubes (which I think was the way the first edition was produced), but then the tokens would not have been so wonderfully designed – it’s a trade off, clearly, and I feel churlish for pointing it out but, well, they are small, and now I know the answer to the question about angels dancing on the head of a pin. I also need to point out that the village board in my copy only lies flat when you place something heavy on top of it, and the combination of a board that is prone to bounce up and tokens that can only be seen with a microscope makes for some nervy moments. Apparently the folks at Grey Fox have had several comments about these tokens, so larger ones are likely for any future reprint.
Can you see them? The ant is to scale. Probably.
So that is the negative side of things, but the remainder of the components are great. The screens have all the information you need and are designed to make you feel as if you are looking into or out of a field of bamboo (I guess), while the planning board for the ronin (a map of the village) and the ninja (the same, but drawn into sand and using pebbles as markers) are exquisite. The village board itself, even if it does not sit entirely flat, is actually beautifully illustrated, a top down view with plenty of details and which contains all the information players need but without getting in the way of the aesthetic feel of it all.
The main board doesn’t lie quite flat, but the player boards are fab.
Defend or attack? Choose your side!
The main thrust of 7 Ronin is that one player represents the – guess? – seven ronin defending the village from the ninja hordes. Down my neck of the woods the only ninja skills I see are when somebody heads out in the dead of night to put their bin bags in somebody else’s wheelie bin, but here it is a matter of life and death for the villagers, and the ronin have promised to defend them in return for shelter, money and food. It is not all heroic stuff, as the introduction in the rules makes clear, but there is a reasonable enough good versus evil thing going on, so choose your sides.
Planning screens have all the information players need.
7 Ronin progresses over a maximum of eight rounds, each of which has three phases. At its heart 7 Ronin is a game of hidden deployment, and it is in the Planning Phase that the two players will decide where their ninja warriors or ronin will go in that round. There is a restriction on the number of ninja that may be placed in each round, but otherwise players are more or less free as to where they may place their warriors. When the screens are lifted the ninja and ronin are deployed to the village board, and the game enters the Combat Phase. At this point the various ronin are allowed to use their special abilities to attempt to tip the balance of the coming battle in their favour. These abilities vary according to the specific ronin, but tend to involve moving ninja markers around or from the board. Once this is done any village area that contains markers from both players needs to be resolved, and the ninja markers in these areas are placed as wounds on the tile of the ronin that is in that area. If a ronin tile has all its spaces filled by ninja markers then it is removed from the game and any leftover ninja now occupy that area of the village. When all the battles have been resolved it is the ninja player’s turn to activate the abilities of the village areas occupied by their markers. There is then a bit of clearing up, the time track is moved on and another round begins.
These ronin are all the villagers have to save themselves.
Holding out for a hero? The pressure is on!
The ninja player wins 7 Ronin by occupying any five village areas or by occupying two fields and two other village areas, or if all the ronin are defeated and they have at least one surviving ninja. The ronin player needs to hold out until the end of round eight when winter arrives and the remaining ninja flee, or else eliminate all the ninja. It is all pretty easy to grasp.
It will probably take a few goes to get the various abilities sorted out, but once players have a decent idea of what the various ronin and village areas do, and how best to go about working towards an eventual victory, then 7 Ronin real starts to become very enjoyable indeed. In the early game there is some fairly open jostling for position, but the pressure increases as 7 Ronin goes on, the ronin gain more wounds and the ninja threat increases. By the end of the game, which only takes half an hour or so, things can become highly pressured as the ronin attempt to hold out until winter arrives.
Wounds mean pressure.
One versus one equals two? What’s the competition?
Some people have compared 7 Ronin to Sun Tzu, which I have played and enjoy very much, but it reminds me much more of Mr. Jack, not just because of the individual character powers but also because Jack automatically wins if he makes it to the end of round eight, when dawn breaks. The games sit nicely side by side, though, for where Mr. Jack is about alternate turns and trying to outsmart your opponent in a chess-like way, 7 Ronin is about thinking how your opponent is likely to play and where your characters will be best placed.
Attention to detail even in the insert.
Mr. Jack does have one significant advantage over 7 Ronin, though, and that is that especially with the expansion and the random setup and selection of characters it plays out differently every time. The board stays the same, but the combinations of abilities promise that the challenge is going to be new enough each time two players sit down together. In 7 Ronin the game always begins in exactly the same way, so two evenly matched players will have seen most of what the game has to offer before too long, but it still provides enough interest and enjoyment to make it a viable option in a collection, and I have found that it is easy to teach and relatively friendly to gaming newbies. I worry that any expansion would tip the balance of 7 Ronin irretrievably, so I am glad to see that a forthcoming promo for the game provides only the smallest of tweaks rather than revamping the entire game.
Can the villagers hold out until winter?
Two players? Three’s not quite a crowd!
If games like 7 Ronin are your cup of tea, then there is certainly space for it on your shelf alongside Mr. Jack and Sun Tzu, and I can say that with confidence seeing as I now own all three. You can easily get in a couple of games of any of these within the space of an hour, swapping sides in the middle, and all three of them offer a really satisfying gaming experience with varying amounts of bluff, tactics and positioning.
I like 7 Ronin a lot. The quality of the production and artwork is impressive, and it is clear that a huge amount of effort has been put into the English edition of this game. It is a shame that the ninja tokens are so small, but I appreciate the thought that has gone into their thematic design, and it is a small problem rather than a game breaker, and I have seen far greater problems with games in the past. 7 Ronin is unlikely ever to become the central game in any collection, and I doubt that I would put it into heavy gaming rotation, but it certainly has enough going on to make it a useful option for that half hour slot between two players who like the chance to outthink each other. It is quick and clean to learn, but the choices are interesting and nuanced and it has much to recommend it. With bigger name designers and publishers I think 7 Ronin would have made more of an impression upon release, but do not let that put you off at all.
The ninja are gathering and making their plans.
Although 7 Ronin does nothing that is particularly new, its design functions with elegance and it provides a satisfying and strangely thematic experience in its half hour. This is a solid design, beautifully presented although not without some flaws, and I think it has enough quality to be deserving of consideration by players who do most of their gaming in two. It gets 8 out of 10 from me, and I look forward to seeing what these designers have to offer next.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and i'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.